Shizuoka is one of the oldest tea producing regions in Japan. It is said that 12th Century Zen master Eisai helped bring tea production to the prefecture. Other sources credit Eisai’s student, Enni with introducing tea plants to the specific Shizuoka area. Current estimates put Shizuoka’s tea production at approximately 45% of Japan’s total tea production.
Tasting and distinguishing one Japanese tea from another is an exercise in discerning subtlety. Perhaps some background into the region’s conditions and processing traditions can give us a clearer picture of these teas.
I asked 2 Shizuoka tea families to help.
Masanori (Den) Shirakata is a third-generation Japanese tea merchant with over 30 years of hands-on experience in growing and manufacturing Japanese green tea (a.k.a. DS) Den is also President and CEO of his family’s tea business in Japan, Shirakata Denshiro Shoten, Inc and Den’s Tea in California. He has worked in nearly every position in the family company, including production and the tasting room.
The Kinezuka Family (a.k.a. KF) owns and operates NaturaliTea. Father, daughters, and other family members operate a farm of about 3 hectares (7.4 acres). As some answers underwent translation, thanks also goes to Ian Chun of Matcha Latte Media.
1. What characteristics distinguish Shizuoka tea from other Japanese teas?
DS: Generally, Shizuoka teas have natural fresh citrus and grassy notes, but even these characteristics can depend somewhat on how the tea is roasted and blended. Blending here refers to aracha sourced from multiple farms or producers and combined to create larger volumes of tea. Shizuoka tea companies may source their aracha from the tea market, via tea brokers, or directly from farms. As a result, slight variations can be noticed across Shizuoka tea labels. However, you can also find more focused teas like those sourced solely from the Hon Yama region.
KF: Shizuoka has been said since ancient times to be an ideal production area for tea due to the perfect amount of fog and sunlight/shade in the natural environment. The Zen master Myōan Eisai, the 12th century father of Japanese tea, has written about the area in his “Chronicles on the health benefits of tea” (喫茶養生記).
2. What tea varietal is most associated with Shizuoka teas?
DS: 90% of Shizuoka tea and about 80% of all tea grown in Japan is the yabukita varietal. So with Japanese teas, including Shizuoka teas, the factors that create good tea can be prioritized as:
- Harvest Season
- Production Location
- Manufacturing/Roasting Process
- Steeping parameters
KF: Yabukita is the most common cultivar (varietal) utilized in both Shizuoka as well as among our own partner farms. We have 26 partner farmers who work together to produce organic tea leaves. The cooperation over the last 36 years has also extended to co-development of organic cultivation techniques, compost creation, and development of a regional environment suitable for organic tea leaf cultivation.
3. What processing methods are preferred in Shizuoka? For example, is fukamushi preferred by customers, or better suited to the tea?
DS: Fukamushi (deep steamed) steamed teas, produced in the western and eastern parts of Shizuoka, have been the more preferred method for years for several reasons. Farmers often deep steam their aracha before taking it to market because Japanese consumers often prefer the fukamushi style. Fukamushi is relatively easier to steep, and better masks any undesirable flavors in city water supplies. Asamushi (lightly steamed) teas have been produced in central Shizuoka, and are well accepted among connoisseurs. Several top quality teas are made in the asamushi style. Considering popular consumer preferences, many farmers opt to deep steam their aracha.
KF: Processing methods are determined by the characteristics of the environment of any specific area. In the flat areas of Shizuoka, the leaves have longer exposure to sunlight during the day, and are therefore more suitable for fukamushi (long steaming time) processing. Tea fields in the mountains though, are more often processed with chumushi (medium steaming time). In the past, asamushi (light steaming) was the preferred method for mountain-grown tea leaves, but asamushi tea is very sensitive to the purity of water. Water that has calcium hypochlorite (often used to disinfect water) or water in big cities (that is often not as pure) ruins asamushi tea, so production has fallen recently.
4. How are the teas from the 3 seasonal harvests used differently?
DS: In the case of Den’s Tea, we only use the 1st flush for most of our teas.
Spring (ichibancha / first flush) used 100% for making green tea. We produce chumushi (medium-steamed) tea.
Summer (nibancha / second flush) is used for making our black tea. We have created a small black tea factory utilizing machinery imported from Sri Lanka, and Ayumi Kinezuka has visited Sri Lanka frequently over the last decade to study black tea processing. (Most processors in Japan making black tea utilize machinery used for green tea for production.) Producing black tea utilizing Yabukita cultivar leaves, originally meant for sencha, produces a black tea that is very mild to taste – perfect for drinking straight and ideal for consumption with shoyu-based Japanese cuisine.
JW: Many thanks to Den and the Kinezuka family (a la Ian Chun) for sharing their knowledge and experience.
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